This is an ongoing list where I attempt to do the following: Play, Complete, and Rank every video game in the known universe in order to finally answer the age old question "What is the greatest game of all time?" For previous entries find the links on the attached spreadsheet.
How did I do?
|Beat the game||Yes|
|Difficulty||Normal & Easy|
|Missions Completed||7 out of 10|
|Restarts required||Way too many to count|
Now I was supposed to do a write up of "River City Girls," but having beat Tharsis on Normal last night for the first time, I wanted to talk about that game instead, because I just felt the review was ready to pop out of my head. My next entry will be River City Girls, for those that are following along.
Do you like board games? Do you like the type of board games where its you/your team versus the game? Do you like the type of board games where the whole point is to survive creeping dread that makes the game more overwhelming turn after turn until you either win or lose horribly? Well, I do. I love board games, probably as much as I love video games, and I always have. In my social group, I am the person other people look to when it comes down to organizing game nights. I am the psycho who has a closet full of games people (general populace) have not heard of.
Where am I going with this? Well Tharsis should be a board game and not a video game. It fits alongside games like Dead of Winter, The Captain is Dead, and to a lesser extent Pandemic. All these games have roughly the same thing in common, you are fighting against a system that is throwing more obstacles than you can solve at you, and you have to decide what takes precedent first.
I am getting ahead of myself. Tharsis is a survival game where a crew of 4 astronauts are on a ship headed to Mars to respond to a signal that is communicating with them. Obviously things don't go as planned, and your ship becomes damaged. You are 10 weeks away (turns) from being able to land on Mars, but you have to first survive and fix the damaged ship in order to make it there. Each turn the game randomizes incidents that take place on the ship, and if the incidents are left untreated, will have an adverse effect. For instance there might be a CO2 leak, which if left untreated will do -1 damage to all the remaining crew members at the end of the turn, or there might be a fire that will do damage to the ship's hull at the end of the turn. If all of your ship's hull is depleted or all of your crew is killed before you can get to Mars, then its game over. In order to combat those incidents you have to move crew around the ship and deal with the incidents.
Each incident has... lets say a fixing cost, which is a numerical value that you need to bring down to zero in order to fix and not suffer the adverse effect. You bring this number down to zero by rolling actual dice in the room. Roll well and you can bring down the number faster and perhaps take care of it in one turn, but rolling poorly obviously does the opposite. You can bring more than one person in the room in order to fix a defect, and throw more dice at it, but depending on the amount of open instances on your ship could mean that other items go unchecked.
In addition to these instances, there are things like food, health, dice totals, stress, etc. that aren't technically instances that also need to be addressed on your turn. For instance every time you go in a room and roll dice, your next turn you will roll one less, unless you eat food (replaces 3 dice), go to a special room, or have a special character that can use one of their rolled dice and give everyone in that room an additional dice to roll next turn. Now I certainly didn't plan for that previous sentence to talk about dice so much, but here we are. Needless to say, you are constantly managing resources in order to survive. If a characters health is low, they are at risk of dying from any number of issues, and a dead crew member means you have one less turn a week, which is a huge deal. Having a living crew member who can only roll one die a turn, is as good as useless because they won't really be able to fix anything on their own. There are a lot of rules and nuance that are hard to explain without seeing the game itself or playing it, but there is always just enough going on that you are never in a good place.
Should you survive a week, you then get to decide between options your crew puts in front of you that presumably help with their well being. These are fairly basic choices, but you may be approached with a situation where you can pick between "everyone gains one health, but the hull takes one damage" or "You gain one hull but the crew takes one damage." You have to decide, as there is no 3rd option. You will never start a week where everything is in tip top shape.
Having a lot of moving pieces would lead you to believe that the game has a lot of strategy elements behind it. It is part of the reason I kept restarting time and time again, because I was convinced that I was just not figuring the strategy that I needed, but the conclusion I finally came to was that the strategy is only 10% of the battle and sadly the other 90% is just down to straight luck. This is a game based around a dice roll, literally and figuratively. In the whopping two times I beat it, was simply because the RNG gods smiled down on me. Perhaps I would roll 3 sixes on a single roll of 5 dice and be able to wipe out a tough instance with only one person, or the behind the scenes RNG would give me relatively easy instances for the week allowing me to spend time boosting food or health without having big ramifications. However, these are instances few and far between and you are more likely to come across the situation where there are 4 instances happening on the ship and each person has to clear theirs perfectly otherwise its game over. In those situations there is no strategy that will save you, and maybe you can blame what you did on a previous turn, but ultimately your game hinges on getting close to 4 perfect rolls in order to keep playing.
That is an incredibly defeating feeling, its a game that once you play it enough, you will know if you even have a chance at beating it 2 turns in. If I start a playthrough on Normal now, and I don't clear the current instances on the first turn, I might as well restart because taking that health loss or ship damage so early can doom me 9 turns in, and its easier to replay one turn then to try and replay 9.
The work around the edges are good, but aren't anything to write home about. While there is a story in the game played out every time you survive a week, it tips it's hand very early, and you know where it ends up before you get there. The game looks nice like a hi-res board game, but its really the same 5 screens you see every time so there isn't a lot to look at. There is some atmospheric sound/music that plays in the background, but you won't lose anything by turning it off or listening to a podcast/music/tv while playing. The best thing I can say about the game is that the runs are short enough that you can run through 3 attempts in an hour. If you are on a run to beat the game, it probably will only last 45minutes to an hour. It does make the game addictive in the way that you can try again quickly without feeling like you are in for another long haul. Emotionally though, you might not be interested.
The game is meant to be played over and over again, and you will in order to learn the system and try and beat it, but once I beat the game there is no drive for me to play it again. When I beat the game, it was to prove to myself that I could (by repeatedly beating my head against the wall), but I don't have any drive to unlock all the characters or try it again on hard. I felt like I was playing it out of spite, to prove to the game that it won't break me. Maybe that is the point of the game, maybe the developers wanted to design a game that players dislike just enough to try and beat it out of spite.
When I think about the game as a whole, I don't think about it positively. I don't mind failing, I don't mind difficult games, and I have no problem restarting again and again. Where the game lets me down is that the game relies so much on chance that the game can end even if you make all the right moves. Chance plays a role in nearly every game and board game that I enjoy. In X-com you can miss shots that you probably should make, but if you are smart about how you approach in X-com, one or two bad chance roles doesn't doom your entire playthrough of the game, but in Tharsis you can put all your characters in the right spots, you can take your time and plan every move out in triplicate, but if you need a 5 or 6 and roll a 3, that actually could mean that the game ends for you. For some people, that might be the ultimate rush, and it might have worked if this was an actual board game where you put the dice in your hands and let it fly. I can imagine enjoying this game with 3 other friends around a table, where each person takes their turn and rolls dice to see what happens. See who has the hot hand, and who needs a pickup, but when you are playing this on a screen by yourself there is no joy to defeating an instance, or wail of defeat on losing. Just you sitting in silence contemplating your $2 choices.
When I think about this series, I think the greatest game is not only a game that is well put together, but a game that I think a good majority of people can enjoy playing. That isn't to say that the Greatest game is a popularity contest, I am not going to put Wii Sports as the greatest game of all time, but Tharsis is a game I wouldn't be able to recommend for anyone to play. I can't think of a moment I played the game and enjoyed myself. I was playing against a puzzle that didn't want to be solved, and instead of the satisfaction of finally solving it or seeing the game through to the end, I was left only with relief knowing I wouldn't have to boot the game up again.
Is this the greatest game of all time?: Really? No of course not
Where does it rank: If the review didn't make it clear, I am fairly down on the game. Just explaining the game to my wife made her upset and she wasn't even playing it. The game can be addicting, because of its short runs, but I think most people will play this for a day and bounce off hard. I have this ranked as the greatest game out of 80. it sits between 99 Vidas (77th) and Grand Guilds (75th). I would love to hear from the person that has sunk in hundreds of hours and loves Tharsis, how they know all the tricks and how easy the game really is, and how I was just playing it wrong, but alas I don't know if that person exists. *Edit: Yes those folks exist, I stumbled on their posts on reddit and apparently there is no RNG element in the game, and they can win every time, and I must have been playing the wrong game.*
*For those interested in seeing this game: Alex did a quick look for it on the PS4*
Up Next: River City Girls (Switch)
Anyone looking for it: here is the link to the list and more if you are interested in following along with me (this is not a self promotion). Here. I added links on the spreadsheet for quick navigation. Now if you missed a blog of a game you want to read about, you can get to it quickly, rather than having to scroll through my previous blogs wondering when it came up.
Thanks for Listening.